Deadline Express – Issue 4

Howdy, amigos!  Last month we talked about diversity and inclusion, so let’s talk about something a little lighter this month.  The world of Deadlands mirrors our own to a great degree, so you can choose to play any sort of figure you can think of from the western genre, from the hard-bitten cowhand to the grizzled bounty hunter, the soiled dove, to the native scout.  What Deadlands has that the real world lacks (and most other Western settings lack) is a panoply of supernatural origins for your character to choose from, if you wish.

deadlands-banner

 

Now, you’ll have to spend some of your hard-earned building points (and later, bounty points) to shore up your supernatural mojo, but if you’re willing to sacrifice some of your skill points now, it can pay great dividends later on!  Let’s take a look at some of the different supernatural types you can be.

 

Harrowed

Harrowed make the list early because it’s a potential everyone has!  If you croak in the Weird West, there is always a small chance you’ll return from the dead with a manitou riding around in your skull, animating your rotting hide for the rest of eternity.  Although this particular career option comes with a great deal of power, including resistance to fear and injury, improved healing, and a bevy of supernatural powers related to the grave, it also comes with a huge downside: the demonic passenger you carry poses a constant danger to everyone around you, and it’s only a matter of time until it lashes out at someone you care about.

 

Hucksterhoyles-rules

In Deadlands, a European wizard long ago learned the secrets of conjuring manitous to compel them to perform services in the form of magical spells. To keep himself and his students safe, he created and taught methods of controlling these fiendish spirits through mental battles envisioned as games of skill.  Eventually he settled on cards as the most efficient method, and encoded his teachings in a book: Hoyle’s Book of Games (1st Edition only).  Practitioners of this art decode the mysterious secrets in Hoyle’s teachings to cast arcane spells (known as hexes).

 

Mechanically, the player draws a number of playing cards, and the quality of the poker hand they are able to form from them determines the quality of the hex.  Although they tend to be risk-takers (they are, after all, quite literally gambling with their lives every time they cast a hex) these spell slingers are one of the most iconic parts of the setting.

 

Blessed

When the floodgates of the Reckoning opened, it wasn’t just the practitioners of dark magic who saw their power wax.  Holy men and women of all manner of faiths suddenly found their gods much more receptive to their supplications, and the mystical power of myth suddenly at their fingertips once more.

 

The books contain rules for Catholic, Protestant, and Mormon blessed, as well as Jewish, Muslim, Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian practitioners as well. Although they do have a code of conduct they are expected to live by (and may risk loss of their powers if they violate it), Blessed have fewer skills and attributes which their powers are dependent on, allowing them to be more focused in their character building.

 

Mad Scientist

If you love steampunk style and have dreams of Gatling gun vengeance, then mad science may be in your future!  The discovery of the mineral known as ghost rock has led to a wellspring of ‘New Science,’ the catchall term for the bizarre and terrify experiments now running amok through the Weird West.  Although mad science requires a fair amount of resources and a posse willing to accommodate the downtime you’ll need, the only limit to what you can build is your imagination; from lightning guns to rocket trains. The best part is that you don’t even need to hide what you do–this isn’t magic, after all, it’s science!

 

Shamans

The Blessed weren’t the only people who got their mojo back after the Great Quake.  The Native American tribes that thought spirits had long since gone quiet found their own rituals garnering tangible reactions from the beings they entreated.  The Shaman can call on the spirits to do their bidding, wielding powers that other magics pale in comparison.

 

Shamanic favors are potent, some more powerful even than the miracles of the Blessed or the hexes of the Hucksters.  However, to harness this magic you must first entreat the spirits with rituals, which can take anywhere from a couple of actions to several days! Still, when the spirits answer, you can empower your warriors, raise the dead, or have the very earth itself obey your command.

 

But that’s not all!  Although these are the primary Arcane Backgrounds you can take, there are a few others, which aren’t always appropriate for every campaign, but might fit in extremely well depending on your location.

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The Great Maze

Martial Artist

Out in the Great Maze, an unprecedented number of immigrants from the East have come to seek their own version of the American Dream.  The notion of tyrannical rule through force of arms is not new to them, and some of them have learned ways to defend themselves even when unarmed.  Some of them have even learned to tap their own spiritual essence to achieve feats which could be called magical by the unenlightened.  If you are playing in the Great Maze, or anywhere the warlord Kang’s Iron Dragon railroad is located, a Martial Artist can give you a character with one foot in the supernatural side of the line and the other firmly planted in butt kickin’ town.

 

Voodoo

With one of the six major players in the Great Rail Wars firmly rooted in New Orleans, it’s only natural that a little bit of voodoo comes into play somehow!  Far from a unified front, the practitioners of this unique religion have (like so many others) found the voices of their own spirits, the loa, easier to hear since the Reckoning.  Although they primarily fight amongst themselves, as Bayou Vermillion’s dark influence spreads westward, so does the stories of the hexes and conjures his men employ, as well as the magic of the voodoo adherents who oppose his black magic.  If you’re playing in the Deep South, or anywhere Bayou Vermillion has great influence (for good or for ill), then a voodoo practitioner can provide a character somewhere between a Shaman and a Blessed.

 

Mestizo

In the southern part of the Maze, Reverend Grimme sits on his throne as the king of his starving domain of Lost Angels.  With the means to control both food and water for his population, he has also muscled his way into controlling the flow of Ghost Rock in his area, and intends to hold his power as long as possible.  But a few people oppose him, living in his metropolis in secret.  The Mestizos are an obscure religious group, their faith a curious mix of Catholicism and native beliefs.  If you want to play a member of a persecuted religious minority using their powers in service of resistance to the rule of a tyrant, then this is your stop, amigo!  Just make sure your Marshal’s okay with it–the Mestizo doesn’t really fit in very well outside of Lost Angels.

 

Blood Magic

The vile, inbred Whately clan has more than a few secrets, but none more potent than this, their mastery of a form of sorcery called Blood Magic.  Blood Magicians can call down unique curses utilizing the power of their own blood, which is infused with fiendish energy from centuries-old pacts with dark powers.  Unfortunately, Blood Magic is unique to the Whately family–you can’t learn it without the Whately Blood edge, which carries with it the risk of insanity and deformity, as well as a familial connection to one of the most insidious packs of villains in the setting.

 

Pick and Choose

Although there are a few Arcane Backgrounds that aren’t compatible, a great number of them are!  There’s nothing stopping your Shaman from learning the way of the Martial Artist, for instance.  Many’s the hero who walks one of these paths and ends up Harrowed before their story is finished.  A few don’t work together, (a Shaman couldn’t become a Catholic Blessed, for example, nor a Mad Scientist) but as long as you clear them with your Marshal, you should be able to spread yourself as thin as you like.  You won’t achieve the total mastery of someone who focused in their chosen field, but the panoply of tricks you’ll have up your sleeve will make even the most veteran hero jealous!

 

There are a few dozen sourcebooks for Deadlands classic, so if I missed your favorite Arcane Background, I apologize!  Feel free to shoot me a scathing message telling me where the hog ate the cabbage, amigo.  Until next time!

 

Jim Stearns is a one-armed gunslinger from the swamps of Southern Illinois.  In addition to the Ravenloft Corner column at High Level Games, he writes for the Black Library. His mad scribblings can also frequently be found in Quoth the Raven, as well as anthologies like Selfies from the End of the World and Fitting In, both by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him @jcstearnswriter on Twitter.

Deadline Express 3- Diversity in the Weird West

deadlands-banner
Howdy partner!

 

Last time we spoke, we talked a little about some of the rules mechanics that are unique to Deadlands.  This time I thought we’d talk about something a little less crunchy but no less important: diversity.

 

Diversity is an important consideration in the gaming hobby.  In the context of a historical (or alternative history) roleplaying game, diversity is an especially important topic.  Fantasy systems can always be tweaked or altered to allow more stage time for groups of people that don’t feel like they’re being represented in the setting, but historical settings can be understandably off-putting for people who would be oppressed or second-class citizens within that setting.

 

Deadlands is especially sensitive to this, probably because it has to be.  It’s set in a historical period when cisgendered heterosexual white male protestants hold all the cards.  In real history, it was a time when racist and sexist oppression was at an all-time high, and when LGBTQIA individuals didn’t even dare to speak out. Fortunately, the game goes a long way to making gamers of all types feel that their personal identifiers are welcome at the table and in the setting.

 

Race

Deadlands is set in a world where the Civil War is still raging.  (Okay, more grinding on in an oppressive stalemate than raging.) I’m sure the big question on your mind is ‘what about the hot, spicy racism?’ and gratefully, Deadlands does a lot to avoid it.

 

In the world of Deadlands, shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation, the government of the Confederacy decides to free their slaves as well.  The logic being: economic freedom from the Union, with reduced production, is better than suffering military defeat. They abolish the practice on their own in order to bolster the ranks of their own troops and encourage Northern abolitionists to stop supporting the war effort.  (As a side note, the figure who gets this accomplished in Deadlands actually did suggest this in real life, as I understand, so this isn’t just plucked from thin air.)

 

Racism isn’t just against black people, though, I hear you say.  And you’re right.  There is a huge Chinese immigrant population and influence in the Maze, with immigrant figures holding a bit more influence than they may have in real life.  In the west coastal region, Chinese heroes can operate on the same footing as white heroes.

 

Near the southern border, there are a number of calamities.  Mexico is under French occupation and threatened by the undead, so there is a little less tension between northern gringos and natives than there would be otherwise.  (The French occupation is also based on a historical takeover that failed–it just happened to have succeeded in Deadlands.)

 

The bottom line is that the Reckoning (the return of the supernatural to the world) has made the things that go bump in the night, as well as their greater influence, like the War, a larger conflict than interracial tensions, allowing marshals and players to discard racial conflicts that don’t serve their stories.

weird-west

Gender

Much like issues of race, the omnipresence of the Civil War and the dangers of the Reckoning have made many gender inequality issues moot.  Back east, there is still a divide, but even that’s reduced.  One of the six great rail barons is a woman, as well as being one of the most successful industrialists in the setting.  From Granny Smith (an arms manufacturer for the Mormon state) to Katie Karl (one of the leaders of the Texas Rangers), there are women in power prominently placed throughout the setting.  Even one of the template characters is a female sheriff, so the game clearly encourages a greater degree of gender parity than was actually present in in 1877.

 

Native Americans

Of all the marginalized groups, Native Americans probably have the strongest position in Deadlands.  The Reckoning occurs before the end of the Indian Wars, and the continuation of the Civil War (diverting the resources of the USA and CSA away from the west) as well as the return of tribal magics level the playing field tremendously.  Not one, but two coalitions of Native Americans have managed to carve out independent territories for themselves in Deadlands.  Far from being oppressed and relegated to reservations, the tribal coalitions are an independent force to be reckoned with, and potent allies in the struggle against the forces of evil.

six-guns-and-sorceryDiversity

LGBTQIA

There aren’t as many gay and trans characters in the setting as one might like, it’s true.  However, the same point that gets hammered over and over, that the conflicts with other national groups and the fight against the monsters are more important than squabbles within our own communities, is one that could be realistically applied to the LGBTQIA community as well.  You could easily slide a gay character into a game without breaking any suspension of disbelief.  When you’re in the trenches, being shot at with gatling guns, or fighting off vampires, you don’t care about the sexual preference of the person next to you; only that they have your back.

 

Religion

The fact that all religions can call on divine abilities to protect the innocent from the depredations of the wicked goes a long way to make them more accepted.  Although protestant Christians remain the dominant religion, the fact that Catholics can also call down real, honest miracles does a great deal to lessen tensions.  Those are far from the only options, of course: Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, and Buddhism are all given positions of respect and prestige.

 

Edges/Hindrances

Of course, discrimination still exists.  The level of discrimination in your game, however, should be something that marshal and player are comfortable with.  To that end, your Edges and Hindrances are big hints as to your preferences.  If you play a Chinese character but don’t take the Ferner Hindrance, you’re sending a big signal to your marshal that you’re not interested in doing stories about racial prejudice.  If you play a female character with the Law Man or Rank edge, you tell your marshal that you’re interested in being in a position of authority, not being treated like a delicate belle. It’s an extra level of communication both parties should be conscious of. *Editor Note, we encourage having some frank, straightforward conversations about these elements with players prior to introducing them. Take subtle clues, but don’t be afraid to ask directly.

 

Conclusion

If you’re a cisgendered heterosexual white male protestant, it can sometimes be easy to overlook a lack of diversity in games.  Especially in historic games, where it’s tempting to resist doing a little extra work for the sake of inclusion by using ‘that’s how it was back then’ as a shield.

 

Gaming has done a lot to shed the image of the community as nothing but a bunch of socially awkward white male nerds.  Our community includes men and women, nerds and athletes, people of color, all nationalities, faiths, and positions on the gender spectrum.  It’s important that we make our games as welcoming as our communities should be.  Fortunately for us, Deadlands gives us the tools and the setting to make what might otherwise be an awkward situation comfortable and inclusive for everyone.

 

Jim Stearns is a one-armed gunslinger from the swamps of Southern Illinois.  In addition to the Ravenloft Corner column at High Level Games, his mad scribblings can frequently be found in Quoth the Raven, as well as anthologies like Selfies from the End of the World and Fitting In, both by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him @jcstearnswriter on Twitter.

The Tradition of Magic in RPGs – AD&D

summoning
So now, after looking at Chainmail, we’ll take a look at 1st edition AD&D. Here, we see a departure from the simple and basic rules found in Chainmail and white box D&D. Here we see a detailed magic system with a more extensive spell list.

1st edition AD&D had a detailed and odd way of providing spells. This is because the rules printed in the Player’s Handbook only give part of the rules for granting spells. The other half is listed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Nowadays this is a moot point, as you can get both books at the same time. However, when they were first released the Player’s Handbook was put out a year before the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

In fact, the first AD&D supplement put out was the Monster Manual which was released in 1977, with the Player’s Handbook following in 1978, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide finally in 1979.

So, as mentioned in the PH (Player’s Handbook) a magic users ability to learn a spell was based on their Intelligence (INT) score. Your INT would determine your % chance to learn a spell.My group? We would roll on the list and any spells in which we passed the percentage to learn roll we would mark those in our books as spells we HAD THE POSSIBILITY of learning, if we came upon them during the course of the game.

Thus, we would go down the list and roll to see what spells we knew. If we didn’t pass any rolls we didn’t get to know that spell. As we understood the rules, our minds could not comprehend the spell or grasp the intricacies of a spell. Once in awhile a DM would be “nice” and allow us to roll through again if we didn’t meet the minimum spell number for our level.

The real issue I had was that last column above “Number of knowable spells per level Maximum”. I didn’t like this. Why? Many times I would be rolling through the spell list in the PH and pass the % Chance to know Any given spell and hit my max number of spells knowable before I had finished the list. NO FAIR!

From a DM standpoint the book didn’t say you had to roll them in any order and I allowed my players to roll them in any order they wished. The rules stated that the Maximum knowable was because your brain couldn’t comprehend any further information. Given that magic users had to memorize the spells and copy them into their spell books, they could only keep so much in their heads.

All of this is great. One thing is never stated though: How many spells a magic user ACTUALLY STARTS WITH AT CHARACTER CREATION! Yep, again. All that rolling for spells above is just to determine if you have the ability to learn the spell, should the opportunity arise. It doesn’t tell you the number of spells you would get. That information was in the DMG (Dungeon Master’s Guide).

The DMG mentioned the spells a magic user would know. Four, is the number of spells a 1st level magic user knew. The first spell it stated that all magic users would know was Read Magic, as how else would you be able to cast any other spells? All other spells fell into three categories Offensive,Defensive, and Miscellaneous. A player would roll a d10 and determine randomly what spell they would know from each of these lists.

That’s how you learned the spells, and of course, you would have to keep the needed components on hand and take the time to memorize each spell first thing each day. There is a sense of nostalgia looking at how this system ran. It is neat seeing how much has changed.

skeletor-magic-missle

Wonderful Skeletor, we want you to cast that spell. To cast a spell you memorize the spell and use one of your spell slots. Use up the spell slot and that’s it. Well, from a mechanics standpoint you have to wait the amount of time it takes to cast the spell and if there is a saving throw the defender gets to roll.

Really though that is it. It’s not all that bad. Pretty straightforward really. So pro’s and con’s?

Pros:

Easy, once you fully understand it.

Like most versions of D&D (except 4th) magic casting has changed very little, so you know one edition, you know them all.

Cons

The clunkiness of having the spell system separated between the PH and the DMG can cause confusion.

The spell list, while not exhaustive, is not really what I would consider “open”

So, in conclusion, AD&D did a good job of having a robust magic system that did just as it was intended. The Spells were vast, and covered many different styles. Though, for me, the constant spell lists and noting the particulars did get tedious.

For what it set out to do (and still does) the D&D magic system does it very well. There is a reason why so many spells in the game are household names. It is a robust system even with it’s flaws.

Many other games would emulate the groundwork laid by D&D. Even in the early years, games such as Tunnels & Trolls, Bunnies & Burrows, Traveller, and Runequest would expand the ways in which magic, in RPG’s, was used.

Next week we will look at Runequest, 2nd Ed. AD&D, and the Traveler black book. Moving from the high fantasy that dominated the hobby in the early days, sci-fi finally had it’s say in the medium, and it was very different, to say the least.

Scott is a true analog gamer doing everything from pen and paper RPG’s to board games and everything in-between. He started out with Advanced D&D 2nd edition at the age of 10. From there he likes all genres and types, from the well known big names to smaller indie print publishers. Scott is Vice-President of The Wrecking Crew

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

The Tradition of Magic in RPGs – Chainmail

strange
No, don’t worry, there are no spoilers in this article, however, with the release of Doctor Strange it got me thinking about the ways that magic is portrayed in our hobby and what I like and don’t like about different magic systems. What makes a good magic system vs a bad magic system? Even more so, what is the evolution of magic in the hobby? There has been a lot of growth from the early days of 1st ed AD&D to modern day games like Savage Worlds or FATE.

For myself, I have always gravitated to the magic user in RPG’s that offer them as a class option. For me, it was a mix of describing the awesome effects of the spells and also the system that was used for magic.  Some systems are very complex and involved with rigid lists and names and others, very loose allowing for endless customization with an easy open system that ended up being complex far beyond what I thought was possible.

Looking back on my years of games, there are a few standout games that really made me rethink what can be done with magic. For me, these games are in order: AD&D 1st and 2nd Edition, Shadowrun, Ars Magica, TORG, Mage: The Ascension 20th anniversary edition, and FATE Core. This is the order I was introduced to each of these systems, not the order they were released. Nonetheless, each of these systems showed a new and exciting way to implement magic. AD&D of course, was the granddaddy of RPGs, as it came out of miniature wargaming, specifically Chainmail, which itself included two Wizard spells in it’s second edition.

chainmailIn fact, Dungeons and Dragons started as a Chainmail variant. I found it very interesting that Chainmail, and D&D by extension, were heavily influenced by Tolkien with such a rigid rules set that didn’t leave much room for variation. In my youth, I read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, including The Hobbit, every year from 5th grade until I graduated high school. With such a love for Mr. Tolkien’s work AD&D was a big deal and I found myself wanting to devour any book I could get my hands on.

Of course, while I read these books hungrily in my early days, it was not much of a game when we did play.

GM: What do you want to do?

Me: I want to go to the bar!

GM: Okay you’re at the bar.

Me: I ask the bartender for a quest.

GM: Okay, he asks you to find a mystical magical sword.

Me: I accept

GM: Okay you are now at the cave that has the sword.

Me: I go in.

Etc, etc, etc.

All this talk of magic, and after looking back through my books, got me really looking at how magic is used in RPG’s. This in turn led to many hours spent reading through different editions of many books and really taking a hard non-biased look at their different magic systems. So, over the next few weeks, I will look at different game lines and look at how magic was used. Both good and bad points of the magic systems will be listed and an overall history will be given of the systems covered.

white-bookWe shall start AT THE BEGINING with Chainmail. Where there other RPG’s before this? Why, yes. However, most of these were Fantasy Wargames and not commercially available. From an “RPG” viewpoint, Chainmail is the first, and even then, most would point to White box D&D as the first true pen and paper RPG, as we know them today.

Without Chainmail there would be no D&D. Back in 1968, Gary Gygax saw a game of Siege of Bodenburg being played at the very first Lake Geneva Wargaming Convention (Gencon). Siege of Bodenburg didn’t include any magic, however, it revolved around two players using 40mm Elastolin miniatures played on a 6×6 board. Gygax inquired about purchasing these figures. This led to many different rules revisions over the next few years. The chief among them being the new ruleset that Gygax and his partner Jeff Perren created and published in their Castles and Crusades Society fanzine The Doomsday book.

All of the work that was done fine tuning that ruleset brought Gygax and Perren to the attention of Guidon Games. Guidon hired him to create a ruleset for a new gameline they wanted to release.

One of these three games would become Chainmail.

As noted above, Chainmail included two magic spells in its second edition, which was released in 1972. It also covered magic armor as well. The rules for the game were straight forward overall, just rolling and consulting charts to see what hit and what didn’t. Not complicated at all, really.

Humble beginnings indeed.

Pros and cons of Chainmail:

Pros

It helped to give us D&D

Simple system (if you can call it a magic system)

Cons

Non really. I mean it’s not a “magic system” per say.

It was in 1972 however, that TSR product designation 2002 was released and gaming was never truly the same ever again. D&D had arrived. D&D’s magic system draws heavily from The Dying Earth series of stories by author Jack Vance, in particular, the notion that magic users could only memorize so many spells per day and once they used them, they forgot them. In fact, the style of magic is referred to as Vancian magic. Looking at the Wiktionary definition of the word it fits perfectly with what the D&D magic system does:

Vancian magic:men-and-magic

Noun:

  1. A form of magic based on the existence of spells that must be prepared in advance, for specific purposes, and that can be used a finite number of times.

White box D&D (as it is called nowadays) was a collection of three books:

Men and Magic

The first of the three books included in the white box are where magic spells are listed. The classes, all three of them;  Cleric, Fighting-men, and Magic User.The races listed were Human, Dwarf, Elf, and Halflings. Only three alignments were given: law, chaos, and neutrality. While the magic user does have magic spells they were handled very differently. Magic users max out at 6th level while Cleric’s max at 5th.  Spells used a spell slot and the defender got to make a saving throw. Overall, the game took it on faith that the player owned a copy of Chainmail and used those rules. However, an “alternate system “was given in the appendix of the book for dealing with combat, roll a 20 sided die and compare to a list of AC values. If it hit, then roll 1d6 for damage. That’s it!

monsters-and-treasureMonsters and Treasure

The second book covers well…monsters and treasure. Of note for this blog, are the magic items. The Flaming sword and Brazier of Controlling Fire Elementals were introduced in this supplement. Dragons were here, as well with alignments as we know them today.

The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

Lastly, this book was divided into two parts. The first one provided details on designing dungeons and even included the first published dungeon with multiple levels and wandering monsters. The other half of the book detailed running games outside of the dungeon and even suggested the use of Avalon Hills Outdoor Survival game from 1972.

Together these three books made up the white box and the first iteration of D&D. There were further supplements, notably Blackmoore and the original Greyhawk setting. These introduced further information. Like in Greyhawk, supplement spells for 8th and 9th level for Magic Users and  6th and 7th level spells for Clerics were introduced.

Pictured below are the spells for both Magic Users and Clerics.

spells-1

spells-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the table above, one can see that early lists included a lot of staple spells that have become  household names that everyone knows today. An interesting point to note, there are rules regarding “evil” clerics. I like that, even in these early days, there was this sense of good vs. evil built into the game world. Knowing that some of your spells would not work due to a “balance” of a “force” makes me happy.

underworld

Pros

A bit on the complex side however the system’s staples were here.

Tables? It has tables. Lots and lots of them!

Cons

Spell lists. Customizing was not something that was done during this edition.

Tables? It has tables. Lots and lots of them!

Next, we’ll look at First Edition AD&D

 

 

Scott is a true analog gamer doing everything from pen and paper RPG’s to board games and everything in-between. He started out with Advanced D&D 2nd edition at the age of 10. From there he likes all genres and types, from the well known big names to smaller indie print publishers. Scott is Vice-President of The Wrecking Crew

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

[Not] Welcoming Players to Our Table

We’ve all probably been at a game with that one player. You know the one. Usually a guy, but sometimes a lady, who is there because their significant other is there. They don’t get it. At best, they need somebody to hand them the right dice every time, at worst, they play some atrocity of a character who soils the bed at every opportunity. Players like that chase our fun players away. Players like that are also a simple problem to fix. What if our game is what is chasing players away? What do we do when our games and the game rules are the thing making people feel unwelcomed? Let’s take “Changeling: the Dreaming” and character creation as an example case.

Changeling

Earlier this year I pitched a “Changeling: the Dreaming” game to my group — a collaborative effort between the Kithain (Europeans) and the Nunnehi (Native Americans) to make renewable energy and tiny homes work. The way I envisioned it, the game would be an examination of the strained relationship between the Native and Euro-Americans and their different cultural values. This game would use CtD’s rule system and setting, more or less as written.

I could not convince a single player to play a Nunnehi.

A month or so ago I pitched a similar idea: a CtD game that would examine the relationship between the Nunnehi and Kithain around western Lake Superior area during the iron boom of the early 20th century. We would use a homebrew Dark Ages: Fae game system for this game.

Two thirds of my players made Nunnehi.

What’s different? It’s the same group of people. It’s a similar core concept — swap out renewable energy for mining — they’re both about human impact on the environment. Arguably mining affects the Kithain more than renewables due to the terrible labor practices of the time. The physical location was the same, though separated by about a century. The strength of the Nunnehi as a political entity increases as we move backward through time, so that may be a factor as well. I think the primary difference is the difference between how CtD and DAF treat character creation and some of the rules governing magic.

In CtD, a player makes a Nunnehi by choosing between 13 pre-created Kiths (species of supernaturals). Here’s our first problem, and it’s a messy one. There are 13 Kiths to represent the dozens of Native cultures that exist. It breaks down to 2 Kiths for each geographic region of the US & Canada (Pacific Northwest, Atlantic Southeast, Midwest, et cetera). We’re taking this map and saying 13 archetypes adequately address this level of complexity:

tribal-nations-map

“But the Kithain have 13 Kiths,” I can imagine someone saying at this point. “How is that not at least as reductive?”

I agree with that imaginary person. It makes no sense for Satyrs or Trolls to be part of a fundamentally Celtic pantheon. However, that complaint is presupposing that these two problems have the same effect on our players. I don’t think they do. Native Americans are living in the shadow of a genocide. White people in America don’t have to face headlines on the sports page like, “Washington Crackers Lose Again”. White people don’t have to go to school and learn a history that, if it mentions them at all, calls them savages and reduces their cultures to stone-age barbarism. In short, white people aren’t dealing with being killed and then having that crime erased.

Next, players choose a Camp, the Nunnehi version of Courts. Nunnehi choose from Summer (peaceful), Winter (warlike), or Midseason (trickster). The Courts, and Camps, are a sticky problem in CtD. If you go off of the core book, they’re a fairly black and white political alignment. The Seelie value tradition and honour while the Unseelie are survivalists who aren’t above petty crimes if it means they make it through another night. The deeper you dig into CtD’s supplemental material the more you see the buried thread that the politics are dirty. The Selee do value tradition and honour — but they’ve also violently suppressed the Unseelie for close to 400 years, exploited their mortal family members without remorse, and when the Sidhe returned to Earth in the 1960s the Seelie Sidhe lead the charge to conquer America again. The Unseelie, on the other hand, range from monsters who feed on nightmares, to rebels trying to restore the proper order of the world, to nihilists who don’t care what happens to the world as long as they’re the kings.

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The Kithain Courts are a messy intersection of identity, politics, history, mythology, philosophy, and how one chooses to interact with the world. I’ve played games where Court was just “what a Changeling is”, and I found them really unsatisfying. It takes what should be an examination of the character’s place in the world and turns it into “are you good or evil”? That is why I find the Nunnehi Camps problematic. Rather than being a launching point for the question “How do I fit into this world?” They’re: “am I friendly to white people?”

The other thing that Courts and Camps do is determine how the character prefers to gather Glamour (or in the Nunnehi’s case, gather Medicine). Glamour/Medicine is the game’s power trait (like mana or stamina points in other games). You use it to do magic. For the Kithain this is tied up in a messy package. The Courts are an amalgam of  spiritual identity and  political philosophy. The Seelie Court gains Glamour from inspiring hope and love and Disney crap like that — which meshes strangely with their being ambiguously an authoritarian hegemony.

The Camps determine what aspect of the physical world a Nunnehi may gather Medicine from. Summer people regain Medicine from growing things, Winter from rocks, and Midseason from flowering plants. This sounds pretty workable until you get deeper into the system and discover that the Nunnehi may only gather Medicine from a “pure” source. “Pure”, in this case, refers to whether or not a thing has been interfered with by man. Medicine cannot be gathered from plants, flowers, rocks, or water that has been tended or cultivated in any way. Compare with the Kithain, who may regain Glamour from Glens (their version of pure sources), Freeholds, and human creativity. This puts the Nunnehi player at a distinct disadvantage in the city, where the vast majority of CtD games take place. This also plays into the myth that native cultures didn’t tend or mold the land to their needs, which they did.

And then there’s the Dreaming. The Dreaming is Changeling’s version of the spiritworld. Think of a combination of faerieland and the collective unconscious and you’ve got the gyst of it. The Dreaming is where all Changelings are from and where they’re trying to return to (if they’re into that). It’s the source of their strangeness and their magic. Their connection to The Dreaming is what separates them (and by extension their families) from other humans. In CtD the Nunnehi cannot access The Dreaming unless a Kithain Changeling helps them. The Native American spirit people can’t get into the spirit world… unless a white guy helps them. The Nunnehi access the Umbra (“Mage: the Ascension”’s spiritworld), which isn’t where they’re from, it isn’t where their magic comes from, and has nothing to do with the cultures they’re supposed to be from. I love “Changeling: the Dreaming” but the message this rule sends is equally baffling and disgusting.

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How does “Dark Ages: Fae” treat a player wanting to make a Nunnehi character? “Dark Ages: Fae” is basically a Kithless system. Players choose Echoes (traditional weaknesses), Dominions (broad magic domains), Features (quirks of appearance sometimes tied to supernatural abilities), and Oaths (taboos and responsibilities) a la carte. Characters all have the same opportunities to recover their magic. DAF treats the spiritworld in a fairly neutral way, possibly due to the word count limitations of the product. It’s mostly coded to be generically European, but it doesn’t go out of its way to say things like “Nunnehi stay out!” the way CtD does.

The only really major change we ended up making to DAF’s rules was adding Camps. DAF uses a Court system that is irrelevant to the Nunnehi. I think that despite the oddness of being both a spiritual and political alignment, the key to why the CtD Courts work is that they’re all fundamentally about trying to navigate the duality of the Changeling experience. Changelings have human morals and fundamentally alien needs (or alien morals and fundamentally human needs if the game goes in that direction). How they address that, is, in a large part, a reflection of their culture. Does one prioritize the need for continuity and tradition or survival? I’m not Native American, so I can’t really speak to how the gestalt nature of the Nunnehi should be expressed or experienced, but our homebrew Camps refocused the Nunnehi experience back onto how they navigate the worlds of their home communities, their nature as part-spirit/part-human amalgams, and the dominant culture. Leslie Marmon Silko’s book “Ceremony” and Tomson Highway’s “Kiss of the Fur Queen” were both instrumental in deciding to take our game in that direction.

From these differences, I think we can take away a few broad points about how our games can be more welcoming. Our games’ rules need to be flexible and open. We need to avoid the impulse to catalog and be proscriptive. Some games created around tight themes need that treatment, but CtD’s themes don’t require as strict a system as the Kiths. By opening it up, we get players drawing on their own experience and, hopefully, being able to see that experience meshing with the game world. This ties into another similar but distinct point — Players need to be able to see their characters as a reflection of something authentic: a human need or fear, a way to examine a human conflict, or a way to experience a different weltanshauung. They need to be able to feel a sense of verisimilitude about their characters and the way they fit (or don’t) into the game world. When a game’s rules make it clear that a certain sort of character simply was out of consideration when designing the game, that game and that player’s worlds clash and fail to create the level of engagement that makes for good game.

 

Simon Eichhörnchen can trace his passion for gaming back to his parents discovering where he squirreled away his D&D Player’s Guide and telling him to not get involved in that cult stuff or they’d cut off his tuition money. When Simon discovered Changeling: the Dreaming he dropped out of college to pursue the nomadic lifestyle of an RPG cultist. A sometimes guest on Tempus Tenebrarum (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvNp2le5EGWW5jY0lQ9G39Q/feed), Simon will take any opportunity to talk about gaming as a space to examine minority/dominant culture relationships.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of  any other Author or the Editor of Keep On the Heathlands.

Weather Engine – Worldbuilding 1

Previously we’ve spent some time together talking at a high level about being a godling in a technological universe.  Now let’s look at just being Gawd and creating your own world to run or play your game in.  The art of world creation isn’t easy or for the faint of heart.  Sure, any fella out there can throw together some two-bit town with a single road and a donkey but I’m talking about real world building.  They always say write what you know and so I’ll be approaching this from the angle of how I build a setting.  Please note that my method may not fit you or the type of world you want to create.  That’s ok; if any of this is useful than I’ve succeeded at my job..err..position…no…favor for a friend?  Whatever this gig is.  

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I’m going to convince you that weather is the most important element of your world building.  Weather drives so much about a place, and a people, and it’s always my starting position for world building.  Is it rainy or dry?  Is it neutral?  Are there the usual four seasons?  Any of them particularly long?  If the land is windy all the time the trees will be short and twisted, shrubs and tough grass will cover the land.  If it’s a long winter you’ll have fast growing plants and animals adapted for cold more than heat.  The weather can also drive how technologically advanced a people can be.  A land where nothing grows like Arctic tundra or desert dunes will encourage a people towards hunting and nomadic life-styles with an emphasis on weapon and travel technologies.  While a land with sunny days and green lush land with plenty of water will develop farming and fortification technologies.  

From Weather we can draw direct connections to technological orientation but we can also draw direct lines to diet based on the kinds of animals and plants to be found in an environment with those weather patterns.  A desert dwelling people are some of the heaviest users of spice for their foods as what they’re consuming tends toward bland and they have the right environment for growing many of these spices at the edges of said desert. If you wished to dive deep you could take a look at the types of spices used in various environments and use those flavors to, ahem, flavor your flavor text.  A people’s diet can also inform things like average height and weight with heavier meat filled diets lending people height and weight while a primarily vegetarian people would be shorter and sparser of frame.  

fuji

Weather and food connect directly to clothing choices and the materials to make those clothes.  This also informs what kind of armor they likely favor, weaponry preferences, and even the type of building materials and designs they favor.  An area like Japan, a hilly forested island doesn’t lend itself towards large herds of animals, nor are large herds of animals the most efficient ratio of land use to calories, so an agrarian society with very little red meat creates a population of shorter and smaller framed people.  As a place with few mineral resources the use of plant materials for construction, clothing, armor, etc. becomes the next logical step.  These lines of thought can be very sparse, a sketch of a region and its people, to help a GM add a little character to a small village. They can also be very complicated interconnected webs, the decision is completely up to you.     

An important note to remember, culture; the culmination of spiritual, religious, superstitious, entertainment, and traditional practices; is not the same as what we’ve laid out so far.  A culture is certainly influenced by region, weather, and environment but is equally affected by interactions with other cultures, politics, and the murky origins of a people’s faith.  That’s right, religion conversation, full steam ahead!

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The spirituality of a nation grows out of a desire to explain things and to some extent to tell stories.  A father tells his son how those bright lights in the sky make the shape of a horse and comes with up some tale to entertain the lad.  He tells his son, then onto the next son, and the next until it becomes a corner of spirituality.  The gods put the first horse into the sky to pull the night behind him as he gallops across. This tale grows and either finds it way into a manuscript on the origins of the names of the constellations or as part of a religion; the steed of Zaphaeus, archangel of wrath of the creator god Eloi!

Religion and to a lesser extent spirituality is where we can really see formalized politics developing.  Imagine a tribe, stone age, barely getting by.  They’re led by the strongest male who is either great at hunting or great getting others motivated to hunt.  As spirituality develops, a separate position of power forms in the group; the shaman.  Or medicine man, priest, magus, seer, etc.  This creates two positions of influence in a group that previously had only one.  The first formalized politics form.  Just as religious practices can severely alter a nation; for example, a land with miles and miles of coast with a religious proscription against eating shellfish, due to them eating carrion; so can political upheavals and power shifts.

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Once a nation passes a technological threshold, say late medieval to early renaissance, weather loses impact as a driving societal force.  There are obviously exceptions for extreme circumstances and some environments discourage ever reaching that technological level naturally.  A desert, for example, does not encourage cities nor generally produces the food resources necessary for a large idle population, which is a must for a nation to innovate, technologically speaking.  

There’s a barrier between survival level culture and knowledge and the level beyond with idle urban populations and farms producing far more than they can consume.  Some environments actively assist crossing this barrier in the case of temperate, plains, and deciduous forests.  Others can actively oppose such development such as deserts, rain forests, and heavily mountainous terrain.  As an additional note I understand that terrain doesn’t actively oppose or assist anything; just a word choice people, put away the literary knives.  

Exotic environment can be treated much the same way; frozen glaciers, deserts made of glass, underground tunnels, floating islands, and undersea kingdoms can all be sketched out and then filled out using the same ideas.  Let’s take a look at an undersea kingdom.

Weather is non-stop rain.  Did you hear the drum and cymbal in the background?  No?  Fine then.  An undersea kingdom has very limited “weather”; but there are consistent weather like effects.  The tides would act like a highway system creating the option for extensive trade networks and/or expansive kingdoms.  The diet would be exclusively fish, crustacean, and some plant matter.  While fish scales would be useful for little more than ornamentation, the hides of sharks and cloth made of kelp would be common materials for clothing.  There would be no concept of fire and little to no metal or wood working.

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Unless of course this nation bordered land and the people were amphibious.  The population wouldn’t be afraid of the dark and be would very resistant to cold and pressure.  The artifacts of the surface world would have variable value determined by how isolated this undersea nation is.  The spear would be the most popular weapon, anything else would be slowed on a swing by the water and not very effective.


In one paragraph I’ve shaped an undersea culture and I did so by establishing my weather, an interesting incidental effect of that weather, the type of animal and the type of plant most often eaten, what they would make clothes out of, a scarce resource, a common resource, a note on the psychology, and the popular weapon of choice.  In nine words; undersea, tides, fish, kelp, metal, wood, dark, cold, and spear we can create a skeleton to remind the GM of the kind of people these are and the place they inhabit.  A description is a powerful tool for creating a mood or enforcing a theme and world creation is all about the description and more specifically the description words.  

As a final note; always remember that while national borders can and do influence people and segregate cultures it’s the land, the place, the world these nations rose out of that are the start point and the land is a result of the weather.  Weather begets land, land begets resources, resources begets technology, and all of them combine mark a culture.  Good luck, and may Eloi watch over you.

 

Justin has been playing, running, and designing games since he was 14.  He enjoys reading, writing, eating, and sleeping.  He also enjoys a good think but not too often as he’s very heat sensitive and doesn’t want his brain to boil over.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

Bluebeard’s Bride: An Interview with the Developers

I started role playing back in the mid 90’s when AD&D was struggling a little bit, but the World of Darkness was just hitting it’s boldest strides. It was an era where my local game store, in my relatively small hometown had 2 incredibly tall book displays just for role playing books. Shortly after I started role-playing D&D 3.0 came out and it felt like, just maybe, RPGs were going to be the next big thing.

Now, if you’re reading this blog there is a good chance you know how this story ends. The World of Darkness ended and was replaced by another, which didn’t totally end production, but slipped into a much more obscure status after White Wolf was sold off to CCP. D&D never went away, but the heady days of 3.5 definitely waned.

A lot of people talk about those years as role-playing’s golden era, and I have agreed with that assertion until very recently. We are seeing an unprecedented resurgence of our beloved hobby thanks in large part to the democratization of crowd funding.

Financial risks are now much easier to take, and as a result the past few years have seen the rise of new modes of thinking about role-playing, and the systems to back up those new modes of play. One such system is the Powered by the Apocalypse system, or PbtA for short, which focuses on a very different arc of character creation, and narrative play than the games of the 90’s. PbtA as well as many other modern systems put a much heavier emphasis on narrative flow and story driven action resolution as opposed to actually focusing on emulating combat dynamics through the dice system. Since PbtA has been released under the Creative Commons, it is available to independent developers, there are a wide variety of titles available that use the system.

Three such indie developers are currently running a Kickstarter for one of the most innovative uses of the PbtA system I have seen to date. Whitney “Strix” Beltran, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson are the developers of Bluebeard’s Bride, and as soon as I looked at their project and their background I realized I was looking at a very special development team. Their combined development experience covers video game writing, Scion, 7th Sea, Fate Worlds, Velvet Glove, and several other titles I don’t have the space to list here.

Their kickstarter describes Bluebeard’s Bride as an “investigatory horror” game focusing on the themes of feminine horror. Between the beauty of the work they have shared already on their campaign page, and the incredibly unique pitch I knew I wanted to know more about this game, so I contacted Magpie Games to see if they would be willing to share a little bit more about what they are creating with this project. Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson graciously agreed to share some of their thoughts below:

Bluebeard's Bride Main Kickstarter Art

-Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview. Could you give some background on where the idea for Bluebeard’s Bride came from and what drew each of you to the fairy tale the game is based on?

Sarah: Strix & I met at a Hacking for Women workshop at GenCon 2014 where Marissa was our coach. We’d never actually met before, but when we sat down to talk about what kind of game to make, Strix asked me if I liked fairy tales. 😀

MK: Like Sarah said, they had the idea to make a dark fairytale game and it was my job to jump in and help show how it could fit into the PBtA framework. So, I listened to their crazy cool concepts and showed them how they could represent them mechanically.

– On the Bluebeard’s Bride kickstarter page the game is described as an “investigatory horror roleplaying game”. Can you talk a little bit about what this means, and what drew you to this particular format?

Sarah: In the fairy tale, the Bride is encouraged to explore the house with that one forbidden room as a lure to violate boundaries. Having the players investigate each room, with that uncertainty of what they may find, is this really nice symmetry.

MK: The rooms of a haunted house provide a beautiful holding environment for a horror game. In a genre like this things can escalate quickly, but we wanted the game to reflect the fairy tale. And that fairy tale has an ending, so investigating whether or not Bluebeard loves you is a great way to keep the game fun and suspenseful without letting it run away from having an ending.

– The Kickstarter makes a mention of feminine horror, and in previous interviews you’ve invoked this theme in varying degrees of depth. What do you mean by feminine horror and how you explore it in the game?

Sarah: In this specific context, feminine horror revolves around the life experiences of women. So you’re playing as a woman, and some of the horrors you encounter in the house are more commonly associated with women: enduring pain in order to be beautiful, the aftermath of sexual violence, denial of actual lived experiences, just to name a few.

MK: Feminine horror generally explores tropes and experiences commonly associated with a women and the fears that keep them up at night. In this game, we explore lack of character agency by limiting the options the Bride has when engaging her surroundings and reminding the Bride how society views her, which then undermines how she thinks of herself.

– I see varying emphasis in horror RPGs on navigating boundaries with players before you begin play. You mention safety in the FAQ on the Kickstarter page. How much time do you devote to this topic in the game text, and what game experiences from your own lives have shaped your views on negotiating narrative boundaries in gaming?

Sarah: I’ve gotten to the point where I give each individual player an X card. I want to make sure they use it! We talk about it in both the player chapters and GM chapters in the book, but people need to recognize that they’re playing a horror game.

As far as my own experiences go, I play a lot of games with strangers at conventions. This has given me a lot of time to evaluate how I personally feel when different things come up, and to watch other people try to navigate that for themselves. And while I’ve found my limits on some subjects, overall I’ve been impressed with the level of trust people give each other in games.

MK: For me, it is important to mention that while the game works at conventions with a table full of strangers, it really sings when you play with a group of friends who know and trust one another. I go through a lot more safety talk with a table of people I don’t know than I do with my home group.

The Bride with her Keys

– There was a lot of discussion around the first season of Jessica Jones about how the show dealt with some of the same themes Bluebeard’s Bride invokes, but specifically held back from showing graphic scenes related to the themes of sexual abuse and trauma on screen. In several reviews this restraint was called out and celebrated. In watching the playthrough videos on your kickstarter page, Bluebeard’s Bride dives into this subject matter much more directly. What do you think is the value, as well as the risk of tackling these themes with fewer filters?

Sarah: I loved Jessica Jones, and really appreciated how they handled that. I would say, though, that having these experiences show up more directly is a difference of medium. So if you and I are sitting at a table together, we’re able to talk through trauma in a very open, personal way that you can’t do with TV, and the X card is there to make sure you can feel comfortable doing that. You can stop a TV show if it goes too far for you, but in Bluebeard’s Bride you can press up against boundaries without going over and still finish the story.

MK: Kilgrave was an amazing representation of some of the themes we explore in the game. I agree with Sarah, that the medium and the audience is an important difference to keep in mind, but I think we are going down a similar analogous road to Jessica Jones. We rely on the horrors in the house to represent threats rather than BE the threats. Sure, in Bluebeard’s Bride the ghost might lash out and physically hurt you, but the WHY matters a whole lot more. After all, you cannot exit a room without discovering what happened, to who, and why.

The Kickstarter has obviously funded well beyond its goal and at this point has swept past several stretch goals. Have you talked about any future projects based on Bluebeard’s Bride or in a similar narrative vein given the positive response to this project?

Sarah: Horror is something that I love consuming, from movies to books to comics. I am really looking forward to working on our stretch goals, and so I’m sure this isn’t the last time horror or fairy tales will creep into my work.

MK: I am, and will always be, a fan of horror, so I see myself exploring that more in the future. We have also bitten off quite a bit for Bluebeard’s Bride with this kickstarter, so I am focused on making these rewards as amazing as possible before committing to any more awesome ideas, but I am excited to see what doors may have opened.

Bloody Key– I have to ask for a few game teasers. Could you each tell me what one thing from Bluebeard’s Bride you enjoyed developing the most and are most excited to see player reactions to?

Sarah: I love the Room Threats, and using the keys as inspiration for each room. I particularly love describing the details that make up each room when I’m GMing, from the way light catches the fall of fabric making up the curtains of an old bed, or the smell of leather and tobacco that permeates a study, or the way the colors from a stained glass window play against a wooden floor, and having moments of beauty that interact with the horror in memorable ways.

MK: I think the player moves sheet (Maiden, Ring, and Exit moves) have provided me with the most satisfaction in design. They are core to the rest of the game’s functionality and I have loved the challenge. The move Shiver from Fear has to be my favorite mechanic in play and I can’t wait to see players creeping out their friends with it. 🙂

Thank you all so much and good luck on finishing what looks like it’s going to be a very robust Bluebeard’s Bride game line. The kickstarter for Bluebeard’s Bride ends on November 20th. There are other interviews and several play through videos posted on the Bluebeard‘s Bride campaign page that I highly recommend checking out.

Victor Kinzer has been roleplaying since he first picked up Vampire Dark Ages in high school. He nabbed it as soon as it was released (he might have been lusting after other Vampire books for a while at that point) and hasn’t looked back since. He role plays his way through the vast and treacherous waters of north Chicago, and is hacking away at the next great cyberpunk saga at http://redcircuitry.blogspot.com/. He is an occasional guest on Tempus Tenebrarum (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvNp2le5EGWW5jY0lQ9G39Q/feed), and is working to get in on the con game master circuit. During the rest of his life he works in Research Compliance IT, which might inform more of his World of Darkness storylines than he readily admits.

DEADLINE EXPRESS – DEADLANDS ISSUE 2

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Last time we spoke, we covered some of the general reasons Deadlands is such a marvelous game and setting.  Now we’re going to get down to the gritty specifics: a quick tutorial on how Deadlands works, and the things that set Deadlands apart.  Since we’re still waiting for the release of the 20th anniversary edition, it’ll help to get some people up to speed on mechanics they might not be familiar with, or give a small refresher to cowpokes who’ve been away a bit.

Dice

 

Dice Pools

All your dice pools will be expressed as XdY.  X is the number of dice you roll, Y is the die type.  With two notable exceptions, you only take the highest die, although dice ‘explode’ in Deadlands. (Meaning if you get the maximum value, say a ‘6’ on a d6, you roll that die again and add six the new roll, potentially exploding again.) If the majority (over half) of your dice come up 1’s, you Go Bust, or fail catastrophically.

 

Attributes

You have two types of attributes in Deadlands.  The first is your traits, akin to your basic ability scores in D&D.  Each will be expressed like a die pool as above, and when you roll a raw trait score, that’s what you’ll roll. Humans have an upper limit of a d12 for trait scores, although the first number (the coordination value) theoretically has no upper limit.

 

You also have aptitudes.  Each aptitude is attached to a trait, and will use the die type of the attached trait, while rolling a number of dice depending on the aptitude level.  Aptitudes theoretically have no upper limit.

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Fate Chips

The first mechanic Deadlands uses that might be new to you is fate chips, usually represented in most groups by colored poker chips. These chips come in limited quantities, with fifty of the least valuable white chips available, and only ten of the high value blue chips available. The most valuable, the legend chip, is only introduced after it is earned by performing particularly noteworthy deeds.

 

What are they for? First of all, their most frequent use is to negate combat damage. They allow you to ignore wounds or recover lost hit points (called wind), with the higher value chips providing greater protection.  They also allow dice manipulation, with the smallest chips allowing you to roll an extra die, and the largest chips allowing you to reroll entire dice pools! There are a few rare supernatural powers that require the expenditure of fate chips, but their most coveted use is for bounty points.  Fate chips can be cashed in for bounty, and these points used to purchase permanent character advancement.  (The only way to do so.) Therefore, each fate chip expenditure becomes a risk: how badly do you need to succeed on that roll? Can you afford to take a little damage now so you’ll be able to buy up that aptitude score? It’s a careful balancing act, and one you’ll have to set the guidelines for yourself.

 

How do you earn them? Well, everyone gets thrown a bone at the beginning of a game session, and gets to draw three.  You’ll also earn them for discovering clues, defeating bad guys, and progressing the story.  However, the easiest way to earn them is with your hindrances.  (Character flaws similar to Quirks/Drawbacks/Flaws in other systems.)

cards

Cards

Standard decks of 54 playing cards (jokers included) are used for character generation (they replace die rolls to determine stats), combat initiative, and to determine the outcome of certain supernatural effects.

 

Like WoD, Twilight 2013, or Mayhem, Deadlands allows multiple actions per combat turn, which allows players who like ‘fast’ characters to actually see an advantage over one-woman, one-action systems. Having been dealt a varying number of cards based on an ability roll, initiative will count down from highest to lowest (suits are ordered to break ties).  In an interesting twist, characters with the Leadership aptitude can ‘swap’ cards between willing players, making Deadlands one of the few game systems to make group command skills useful.

 

Edges/Hindrances

Deadlands allows players to purchase a series of advantages (Edges) with building points, and to earn extra points with disadvantages (Hindrances). While many of these edges are nifty (the Arcane Background edge is the only way to access certain supernatural powers, and in my opinion every first time player should buy both the Nerves o’ Steel and Brave edges), the real meat of this system lies in its hindrances.

 

Like every such system, you can choose to buy hindrances that will have minimal impact on you, or even help you in some way.  However, if you do, you’ve already received all the benefit you’ll get from those hindrances.  You see, the easiest way to earn fate chips is by getting screwed by your hindrances: minor inconveniences earn you small fate chips, but ones that put you in life threatening danger net you huge rewards.  (Note that this occurs not when a hindrance comes into play, but when it actually impacts you in a negative way. If you have the Ferner hindrance, and someone makes an unkind comment which you respond to with a witty retort that causes everyone to laugh at them, you get nothing.  If you get jeered out of a bar because of your accent, you should be compensated with a fate chip.) Therefore, it actually behooves you to take hindrances that will bite you in the keister on a regular basis.

 

Wounds/Wind

Unlike World of Darkness and Twilight 2013 with their wound systems, or D&D and Pendragon with their hit point systems, Deadlands has both.  This might seem a little complicated at first, but it’s actually both intuitive and simple.

 

Wind (hit points) represents minor damage like dings and scrapes, plus trauma and fatigue.  Loss of wind will break you, sending you into blissful unconsciousness or curling up into a ball.  Wind recovers fairly easily.

 

Wounds are another story.  They are divided up by hit location, and their loss will result in the impairment or loss of the associated limb, or death in the case of heads and torsos. Wounds take a significant amount of time to heal, so it’s best to bring someone with some supernatural healing capacity, although mundane healing is also possible in a significant way through the Medicine skill.

 

Conclusion

There are lots of fiddly, specific mechanics that will only matter to you depending on your character, but these are the big ones.  Once you’ve given them a chance, you’ll find the signature mechanics that make Deadlands pop not only emphasize the western theme, but add some tools that are typically missing from the RPG repertoire.

 

Until next time, amigos.

 

Jim Stearns is a one-armed gunslinger from the swamps of Southern Illinois.  In addition to the bi-weekly Ravenloft Corner at High Level Games, his mad scribblings can frequently be found in Quoth the Raven, as well as anthologies like Selfies from the End of the World and Fitting In, both by Mad Scientist Journal.

Images are the Properties of Pinnacle and are used under Fair Use. We love Deadlands, and want to support them. Go and buy their books.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

Trans Representation and the Changing Face of Werewolf

Trans Representation and the Changing Face of Werewolf

by Lang Schmitt

werewolf-banner

Click to buy a copy

Early on in the new Werewolf: the Apocalypse BNS book we meet Verity Argyris.  Verity is a young Black Fury historian who’s working to record the oral histories of the Garou, and her observations are scattered throughout the book.

verity

Page 62

After many pages of meeting Verity through her observations, we learn on page 62 that Verity’s mothers in the Tribe were one of the first to keep male-born children, and that at her Rite of Passage she was proclaimed “not just their daughter, but a sister of the tribe”.  In other words, the text is obliquely saying that Verity is what we’d identify as a trans(*) woman.

 

A Societal Shift

 

I haven’t seen a lot of online discussion of Verity.  (Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places.)  While I was searching, though, I found a lot of discussion from several years ago about if a character like Verity could exist among the Black Furies.

A lot of gamers came to the conclusion that she couldn’t.  The Black Furies, they argued, placed too much value on a person’s biology – and Garou would view sex-reassignment hormones or surgery as a tool of the Weaver.  (More on this in a minute.)

Let me be clear:  the first edition of the Black Furies book came out in the early ’90s, when including a radical second-wave feminist group in your fantasy world seemed progressive and forward-thinking.  The Black Furies were based on real-life trans-exclusive Wiccan groups, which emphasize the sacredness of female-bodied biology and experience and reject male-bodied people as equal members.

But the BNS book states:

black-furies-tribe-image

Black Fury Tribebook Revised Cover

“[The Black Furies’] viewpoints have evolved, due to their new leadership.

The Age of Apocalypse has shown them that the equality

they seek so viciously is a complex issue, involving more

than just women and children. They realized that their

exclusivity would damn them … Those who

identify as having the hearts women [sic] also received the

blessing of Artemis and have been welcomed to the tribe.

… Despite their newly opened mindset,

there are rumors of a rift between modern and traditional

Furies regarding how lenient and accepting present-day

Black Furies are perceived by other werewolves.” (p. 70-71)

 

Trans-exclusive radical feminist (TERF) groups still exist in real life.  They inspire harsh feelings from trans activists and their allies, who argue that excluding trans women from cis women’s spaces is pointless, and further marginalizes an already marginal population.  Some TERFs and their groups have not moved past their trans-excusionary worldviews – but many are evolving, like the Black Furies are.

Some gamers will cry foul, arguing that it’s a political act to write a world where the Black Furies are beginning to welcome trans women.  But this in-game change is tied to a real-world change, and it would be equally political to not include trans people in an era when we are becoming more visible and accepted.

 

How to Write a Trans Character

I am young and trans.  I am … blessed? … to have come of age at a time when trans people are newly visible in popular culture.

angel-rentSome people would tell you visibility is an unambiguous good.  I’m less certain.  There are a lot of lazily-written trans characters out there.  The Lazily-Written Trans Character is often a conventionally feminine trans woman.  She is non-threatening and non-sexual, although she may be a sex worker.

She is usually tragic in some way.  Often, she dies before the end of the story, to teach our cis protagonists some kind of lesson.  Think of Angel from RENT, or Rayon from Dallas Buyers Club.

To be completely fair, this type of character is far preferable to unsympathetic trans caricatures, who are grotesque, hypersexual, and dangerous.  (Think Buffalo Bill, or the attack ads that air about transphobic bathroom legislation.)  But lazily-written trans characters are toothless, and ancillary to cis characters’ stories.  They’re objects of pity (or vapid inspiration), rather than figures of genuine strength.  They are no one anyone would want to be, or could ever be.

There is tragedy in much of the trans experience – but we are still the heroes of our own stories.  But you wouldn’t know that from looking at these characters.

We are slowly seeing a broadening of the range of trans narratives that exists in mass media, but problematic characterizations remain.  And even as we see more progressive types appear, mass media portrayals of trans still have something pernicious to them:  the most interesting thing about us, in these stories, is that we are trans.  Our narrative arc is our transition.  Without our gender, we would be no one.

We don’t see a whole lot of Verity in the BNS book, past two vigniettes and her own observations.  But she shows herself to be strong, observant, curious, intelligent, and active.  She’s head and shoulders above the passive, pitiable trans “type” who furthers cis narratives.

Critically, she is more than her transition.  There’s plenty of hay to be made about Verity’s gender, in thinkpieces like this, but ultimately her trans-ness is a footnote.  It only comes up obliquely in the previously-mentioned quote, and in passing when she fears rejection from Black Fury elder in the second vignietteIt’s far more vital that she’s gathering information, and serves as our viewpoint character.

gaia

Gaia

I can think of very few trans viewpoint characters in mass media, and even fewer who aren’t shown through the light of their transition.  Verity feels like something genuinely novel.

 

The Real-World Politics of Werewolf

Why does this matter?  Why does W:tA need trans representation?

When I was looking for discussions about trans in W:tA, I found that many anti-trans fans of the game have (or had) a medicalized and pathological view of trans people.  We are out-of-balance, the argument goes.  We are a product of modern medicine, not nature.  No Garou would ever have us (except for maybe Glasswalkers).

I reject this argument out of hand.  The medicalization and pathologicalization of trans is comparatively modern.  Pre-modern cultures often made (and make) a place for trans people:  Romans had galli; Indian society still has hijra; many American Indian cultures have third or fourth genders.  Our position has varied from place to place, and we have often been the first to be marginalized and scapegoated in times of trouble, but we most definitely existed and we were often accepted.

It is we, in our Weaver-ridden society, who want all genders (and all bodies, in the case of intersex people) in two boxes.  In fact, the BNS book gives a clear route for a non-medical transition for trans characters:  the first level Ajaba gift in this system, Mask of Night, which lets characters transform their body to that of the “opposite sex”.  Shun the Weaver’s medicalized works, and embrace the transformation nature offers you!

We are in fact very in-balance.  Thematically, we mesh perfectly with a game about shapeshifting and balance – even as societies, real and fictional, find dynamic points of balance around us as we re-take our place at the table.

This brings me to the biggest reason why I think W:tA needs trans representation.

Many of the gamers I’ve spoken with are a little leery of this game – and to be completely fair, that’s a feeling I share.  W:tA has a troubled legacy, in a lot of ways.  I found that a lot of female and trans gamers perceive W:tA as a “game for bros”.  Despite the game’s best intentions, they argue, W:tA players often create toxically masculine characters, who enact stereotypically masculine power fantasies without consequence.  (This is completely separate from the in-universe transphobia, or “noble savage” stereotyping of Indigenous peoples.)

werewolf-ban

Werewolf 20th Anniversary Edition

Obviously, this is a generalization.  For any W:tA group I could point to that’s ridden with hyper-masculine power fantasies, I’m sure my readers could find several more that are thoughtful and well-balanced, that draw plenty of female and queer players.

But that’s not really my point:  fairly or not, this is the baggage the game carries with it.  A signature character like Verity isn’t a surefire medicine against W:tA‘s machismo, and I imagine a lot of gaming groups will choose to ignore the changes made to the Black Furies.  But I imagine Verity might take the air out of the sails of a few of the hardcore bros out there, and make Storytellers rethink the feel of the setting.

It takes all kinds to save the world – ranging from the classically masculine fearless and strong, to the classically feminine sensitive and nurturing.  It takes all kinds to build a healthy gaming community, too.

It remains to be seen what Storytellers and players do with BNS’ WerewolfBut I think BNS has taken a potentially polarizing, but critical step toward broadening the game’s world – and making it one female-bodied people and queers are more likely to find friendly to play in.

(*)  For the purposes of this article, I’m using “trans” as an umbrella term that includes anyone who is not cisgender.  “Cisgender” or “cis” means having a gender identity that corresponds with one’s biological sex.  Trans, here, includes people who have taken medical steps to bring their body closer in line with their identity, those who want to take medical steps but have not done so yet, and those who feel no need to do so.  I also mean it to include people who fall outside the gender binary.

 

Lang Schmitt is a transmasculine genderqueer person.  He lives in Madison, WI and makes his living writing.  He currently plays in Underground Theater.  Find him on Facebook, or email him at langschmitt@gmail.com.

OFF LIMIT THEMES? SOCIAL CONTRACT – PART 5

kult

Kult is a controversial Swedish RPG

Welcome back to the final installment of this series. If you have been reading each of these much thanks! The topic for this week would not be the last thing you discuss with your group , but will  be discussed multiple times during this whole process. So, the topic I want to cover in the final article is how to have these ( sometimes very intense)  discussions and make sure that the GM is able to run the game they want while respecting any boundaries. Again , as I always say , please comment and let us get a good discussion going!

 

Topics

No, I am not going to list topics that are controversial here. Most of these would be self evident and,  most of the time, the ones that players may have an issue with are ones that may not be so easily identifiable. With that being the case , it’s more of a way to have a discussion, make sure that every player is heard , and the best time is had by all.

The most straightforward way is to open this talk up is to put it out from the get go is to s imply ask your group what topics or themes they don’t want to have present in the game.Be prepared that a lot of people will simply answer that they can’t think of anything that would offend them that needs to be left out. Trust me on this , everyone has something that they don’t want to be included in a pen and paper RPG. The job of the GM is to make sure that they DO answer you.

In my experience ,  the best way to do this is to let them know they can reach out to you privately via text,  Facebook , or other means away from the group , and let you know what they don’t want to see in game. Even in the most close knit groups , people don’t like to be the reason for not having something included. Normally , for my current groups , any time I am running a game (even after all these years) I state the same thing “If anyone has any topics, themes or other things they want left out of the game please let me know. You can do so here or reach out to me privately. I won’t share what is discussed and I won’t say who does or doesn’t reach out to me.”

Surely you may say  ‘Scott , you don’t have to do that every time. Especially with your home groups. They have already answered this before”   I thought that way too friends and I was so very wrong that it taught me to always ask this very question. My group actually has a rotating roster of GM’s , which I have mentioned in previous entries here , and as such , sometimes a good chunk of time may go by before I run a game for my group.

In addition to this people change from day to day , not to mention from year to year. This means that a topic or subjec t that may once have been ok, could now be an issue. It’s just a polite and considerate thing to ask. Let me explain this in context of a story . Out of respect for the people mentioned I am changing names of those involved.

fire

A few years back , I was running a particular splat in the Chronicles of Darkness world. I had worked with the players on making the characters , and as such I mentioned , as I always do , “If anyone has any topics, themes , or other things they want left out of the game  please let me know. You can do so here , or reach out to me privately. I won’t share what is discussed , and I won’t say who does or doesn’t reach out to me ..None of the players mentioned anything at the table, and no one reached out to me afterwards

We come to the game and , after making the characters, we had one character who had a very graphic scene in their backstories. Now I do want to make it noted this didn’t happen in game it was completely in the backstory , before the game even began. So, with all that being said we start the game. Towards the end of the session in an attempt to bring the PC’s together I corner them and make it so that they are not able to leave a room they are all in.

One PC at this time starts to lash out , and is very adamant  in getting out of the room. Explaining to the player the reason  behind the scenes backfired, as they felt the group as a whole,  and this included me, were attacking them and making them feel like they didn’t have freedom of choice.

We ended the session shortly thereafter. The next day  I reached out to the player and asked what the issue was to make sure that it didn’t happen again. What they told me was that the graphic act that occurred in the other players backstory made them uncomfortable and they felt like that was going to happen to them when they were not allowed to leave the room during that session.
This was not at all my intention of this scene
  and was not anything close to the feeling I was trying to invoke. I assured the player that this was not my intention. Building off of this , I asked why they didn’t mention this topic being off limits at the beginning of the game when I asked the group  and    said “it didn’t occur to me as something that would come up.”

That last statement should be repeated  “it didn’t occur to me as something that would come up.” This is why i always ask. Always. Also, this goes to show you that no matter how much you give people the ability to speak up , they still may not until the are directly confronted with a topic or issue.

Compromise

compromise

So we have a discussion going. That is great.How do we make sure that all parties are equally heard?  Well , that is where compromise comes in. This,  from time to time, will mean that we have to drop a theme or plot thread if absolutely needed. However , let’s not jump to such  a extreme conclusion right  off the bat.

This really becomes a bit of a negotiation in which you will have to use active listening to ensure that both parties (GM and Player) are on the same page. Ask the players what themes they want to avoid. Once they have provided a list ask followup questions in regards to those themes.

“Ok, I’m hearing you want to avoid sexual assault and violence in this game, keep in mind some of these elements are part of the Vampire world, do you want to avoid these completely, or do you want to avoid those interactions with your character?” “Just my character, I’m fine if they happen off-screen with someone else.” “Ok, I can work with that, how do you feel about feeding as a scene we run occasionally?” “Well, I’d like to avoid that usually, but I think my character would try and find willing victims, so if we did run a scene like that I’d like to have consent be important.”

The important thing to remember is during this entire exchange you want to get active consent. This means getting a firm yes from a player. If there is any wavering, be prepared to listen to concerns and if needed remove the theme. If you can’t get active consent, you can present the themes as you play, and then ask again before we delve fully into a scene to ensure a player is comfortable.

When I last ran a Vampire: The Requiem  mini campaign , I had a player who was very against having to roleplay out the scenes were their character would feed. The player decided that, to get around this, they  would have a herd , which in Vampire means they have a group who is willing to let the PC feed off of them.

I explained to the player that I would not make them roll out every single feeding , however I did mention to them that at times I wanted to have them try it out , as feeding in Vampire is a core part of that mood and theme the game presents.I asked that they allowed me to do at least the first feeding for them to set a tone. T  and over time got more acclimated to roleplaying out the feeding scenes.  I still didn’t have it at the forefront as I did with other players , and at times did push back on the player to still play out the scene  as per the rules Herd, just gave him a bonus on feeding ROLLS it didn’t give him a guaranteed to feeding with no issues.

The above example shows active listening. It shows that I addressed the players concerns with feeding and made sure to set an expectation with the overall theme. This also shows getting active consent during the scenes we would run with this player. I would downplay more of the sexual violence of the feeding while still playing up the theme of being a monster.

 

In Conclusion

So, that will wrap up this topic and series. I again appreciate anyone that took the time to read even part of these , and for those of you who read all of them through , thanks very much.

The contract that is made in a gaming group is very interesting and rewarding. By having these discussions , you will see your games become enriched for the better. As mentioned , please let me know thoughts or any questions and let’s get a discussion going.

Scott is a true analog gamer doing everything from pen and paper RPG’s to board games and everything in-between. He started out with Advanced D&D 2nd edition at the age of 10. From there he likes all genres and types, from the well known big names to smaller indie print publishers. Scott is Vice-President of The Wrecking Crew

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.